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Is it on the Test? Teaching Christianity and the Humanities in a Secular Environment

Recently, I asked the following on a quiz in introductory American History: “What did Winthrop mean when he said that the Puritans would build a ”city on a hill“ in New England?” One student replied: “They would build a better city up away from floods and problems.” This remarkably literal answer demonstrates the continuing cultural and spiritual decline so many have eloquently cri-tiqued in the United States. The supposedly “value-free” education offered by the state is anything but morally neutral;2 it excludes values, faith, even figures of speech. The following argues for a counterattack at a point that may surprise many conservatives: the standardized tests increasingly pushed by both state and federal government as measurements (and guarantors) of “accountability” for both teachers and students.

The mess we are in has been long in the making. In the late nineteenth century, with public pre- and post-secondary education barely begun in England and the United States, Richard Simpson could prophesy the following about bureaucratic, state-run, education:

...he (the teacher)...attaches himself more and more to the government which awakened his intellectual ambition by its competitive examinations, and which holds the purse on which he chiefly depends: then he begins to regard himself as a member of the class of functionaries—as a government employee...Here, then, is an organisation, wide-spreading, influential, pedantic; a ready tool of government interference...3

I admit my discomfort here. Educated by this system and now a teacher in it, I owe my fellow citizens a great debt for their willingness to create and support a public educational system. Yet that system constantly works against the values and objectives I believe are essential. Its heavy hand works tirelessly to control how and what I teach. I am a medieval historian; every year, the liberal arts, above all Christianity and the Humanities, do not figure in its plans. To the state, ideas, unfortunately, have consequences only insofar as they are testable in some supposedly objective fashion.

Modern, state-run education is dedicated to new and better ways to drill, mold, and prepare for the future. That future is, of course, defined by the state, whose enormous, bureaucratic power was already clearly perceived by Simpson:

Bureaucracy...is essentially revolutionary, because it is logical...In interests and in condition the functionaries form a class apart, whose business is to classify the rest in the way that gives itself the least trouble, and at the same time to multiply its duties towards them so as to have more claim upon them for pay and an excuse to multiply its numbers. It always keeps changing the people along arbitrary lines of an artificial classification, on arithmetical, not on human principles...4

A glance at a contemporary illustration of his point, the homepage of the Texas Education Agency, is instructive.5 Education is “preparing for success”; what that “success” is and how it might be “prepared” will be determined and redetermined by the state's bureaucracy.

Behind this creed stand several assumptions. The first is that public education is aimed at material success. Long before our local community college chose the slogan “give yourself a raise, education pays,” it had become a commonplace that education was useful only insofar as it led to economic results. These results are, however, tied to a materialistic agenda, with no sense of stewardship or responsibility. In recent decades, they have been increasingly confined to mastering skills and blocks of information; subjects of transcendent value have been pushed to the margins. What matters has been the production of more and more specialists every year.6 This technocracy assumes that students should be educated for the purposes of competition, which means continual examination, examination in the most scientific ways possible: planned, consistent, and objective.7 The humanities and, particularly, the subject of religion, find little place as well.

Since the 1980s, the system's watchword has been “accountability.” Education has been reduced in the eyes of the state and its supporters to a commodity for which the producers (teachers) are responsible. Accountability emerged in the jargon of educationists and politicians as early as the 1980s, as Texas had pioneered standardized finishing exams for high school students that would mirror the exams teachers had to take to be accredited. More recently, the federal government's “No Child Left Behind” act of 2001 has added additional power and weight to the establishment.

Now many believe that standardized teaching and testing will produce the best-educated student. We would expect the educationists and their lobbyists to be enthusiastic; likewise, politicians of all descriptions have no trouble leaping on a bandwagon of reform. The public has also embraced “scientific” teaching and testing, with their ever-diminishing interest in transcendent values. A striking example appears in an article by a middle school teacher who recently wrote in the Perspectives of the AHA how parents, not his students, disapproved of his “unconventional” teaching of history and demanded that he stick “to facts.”8 And facts are essential to accountability, for there cannot be ambiguity or value. Finally, many conservatives have also pledged their allegiance to this system, convinced that the only way to counter the secularist stranglehold on public education—embodied by the NEA—is to define and rigorously test “basic knowledge.”

As a conservative, Christian scholar, I can appreciate the frustration many feel when confronted with an educational establishment whose agenda has promoted points of view directly contrary to our heritage. But the way to challenge and reclaim that heritage and its meaning for our day is not through the standardized test. For it is exactly what that establishment favors the most as the means to accomplish its objectives. What we must do is fight against those who have determined the “results” of education as being facts and regimentation.

In 1954, Mortimer Brewster Smith warned: “And as the art of pedagogics has developed into the science of education, it has also become a vested interest, supported by a gigantic interlocking bureaucracy...”9 Consider the enormous growth of that bureaucracy in the intervening fifty years. From the moment a child enters its maze, he is a ward of the state. His or her teacher must be accredited, which necessitates a certification in education that carries as much—indeed more—weight than any degree in a “content” field. These teachers have passed through the gate guarded by the educationists, the gate of iron first forged by Dewey and his pragmatists, on which is stamped: how one learns is more important than what or why.

Learning is then the means to the end of a job in the system. The education faculty trains students interested in teaching to pass the professional test that will allow them to teach. They then teach under the supervision of educational administrators, who also owe their positions to the system. The future of teacher and administrator are thus tied to the authority of the system, and its symbol, the test. And the cycle repeats, repeats without pause for consideration of transcendent issues. For they are not on the test.

We who believe in the enduring value of the humanities face a considerable challenge. What matters to the system is factual information, classification of that information, and clear results. The “bureaucratic revolution” proclaimed by Simpson and—of course—Weber over a century ago has created an inhumane education, one concerned with “outcomes” and their “assessment.” There is no time for values or questions that have no clear answers. What we study, what we believe, what we consider vital for education, is not included.

A closer look at scientific testing is essential if we are to begin to figure out how to subvert it with ideas. It is the “tyranny of a construct,”10 the core assumption that all knowledge worth knowing is already available, can be scientifically classified, and can be tested objectively. The instrument of that tyranny is the multiple-choice question. As one high-school teacher noted, “Normally you would have a child read a book and make inferences...The TAAS test reading passages are not complete reading passages, they are sections. The confines of a multiple-choice test do not allow for alternative thinking.”11 No wonder, then, how, for example, the history of Christianity is treated here in Texas. There is no point in dwelling on any one subject or exploring the subject of faith and values. For the multiple-choice questions they will have to take to be certified, regardless of how well they have done in my classes, stand between them and their future. What is the point of reading Augustine's Confessions, discussing the rise of dialectical argumentation in the twelfth century, exploring heretics and their opponents in the later Middle Ages—indeed, kneeling beside Luther as he wrestled with the “righteousness of God”—if the test will never consider such “unempirical” subjects!

I have no solutions to this problem, only suggestions to provoke, hopefully, further discussion. We should not assume any basic knowledge of Christianity among our students. It is unlikely that they have received any meaningful discussion in their education. I make it clear that our secular environment does not preclude the study of any aspect of human life, including religion. Thus, Christianity is part of my program, and a major one at that. What students encounter, however, is something generally foreign to their experience. Even if they are Christians, there seems to be relatively little emphasis on understanding their faith—let alone its historical dimensions—in modern, American churches. “Christianity” seems, for most, to be a remarkably plastic faith, one based on morality, the avoidance of certain behavior, right thinking, and good, hard work. I relish the moment in my Church History survey when I demonstrate to them that they are, by and large, Pelagians.

We need to find an evangelical zeal in teaching Christianity and the Humanities. I do not mean this in a narrowly sectarian sense; rather, we should make it clear to our students that we will continue to explore values and the arts of the human experience in spite of the testing system they confront. Most of my students utterly detest the testing system that they endured before the university and now face if they are to become teachers themselves. I make it clear that I see our classroom as something like a revolutionary cell. If they are to fight the system, they must become part of it; thus, they have to pass the test. But they must also never, ever forget to go beyond its mechanistic requirements. Values, faith, beauty—all of these must be encountered, despite—or perhaps better put, precisely because—they are not on the test.

One approach to raising this “revolutionary” consciousness is to take a diffuse approach. From the beginning of the semester in my classes, I emphasize that I will continually address three themes: economic and social life/institutions/culture and values. I do my best to spread discussion of Christianity throughout the curriculum. Helping students understand how Christianity was not isolated in some “private” sphere but, instead, a part of everyday social, political, cultural life is essential. Sometimes it is as simple a question as “why do Joseph and Mary wear contemporary clothes” in a Renaissance painting. We can also use faith-oriented historical sources in unexpected places. A favorite example for me is using excerpts from Pascal's Pensées when discussing the “scientific revolution.” That this gifted mathematician was also a deeply religious man often challenges students' comfortable assumption that science and faith are at war; that he also worried about the “empty spaces” the new cosmology was uncovering demonstrates his own personal struggle with doubt, a struggle that more students have than are likely to admit. Pascal is an excellent ally in countering the scientism of the educationists. Others are available to join us in the fray.

An even better approach to teaching Christianity and the Humanities is direct engagement with a classic text such as the Martyrdom of Felicity and Perpetua, Augustine's Confessions or Luther's On the Freedom of a Christian Man. The student must learn context and content in order to grasp the text, and these provide ample opportunities for discussing basic historical and theological issues. Ideally, the text also then engages the student on a personal level and raises questions that cannot be easily answered. I will never forget explicating the passage in the Confessions where Augustine wrestles with the death of his friend. I had just gotten out of the hospital and several of my students, as it turned out, had also faced the tragedy of losing a friend. No multiple-choice test or pragmatic curriculum could have comprehended what we discussed that day.

An alternative approach in this “direct” method is to have the students read a more contemporary work that addresses the subject of how religion and the humanities bring meaning to life. Two of my favorite texts in this respect are, not surprisingly to readers of this journal, Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences and Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. When Weaver calls for a return to pietas in society, I ask students to define the term for themselves. The idea that modern people might have a debt to the past can provoke some interesting reactions. I generally also like to throw in Jaroslav Pelikan's remark that “traditionalism is the dead faith of the living; tradition is the living faith of the dead.” Frankl, while not discussing the history of religion, is, nevertheless a powerful exponent of humane, transcendent values. I ask them what sustained him at Dachau and then remind the class that it was certainly nothing he had learned for any test. Frankl's continual declaration that life itself is the test can often provide a good forum for discussing those things the state would never expect them to learn for a test.

In the classic science-fiction movie, Rollerball, the world has come under the domination of great corporations which amuse the masses by sponsoring the Rollerball teams. In the year 2018, the corporation and its technology control all. This technology, however, is not only unreliable, but destructive, as Jonathan E., the veteran player, discovers when the keeper of the computer archives remarks “We've just lost the entire thirteenth century. Still nothing much there apart from Dante and a few corrupt popes.”12 This dystopian vision does not seem all that far-fetched to me. A bureaucratized, impersonal educational system dedicated to “outcomes” and increasingly reliant on technology, not frail, unreliable people, has precious little interest in apparently irrelevant subjects such as history, let alone Christianity and the humanities. The “irrelevant” can easily be discarded. The system is dedicated to regimentation and exactitude. Ignorance and irrelevance are its supposed enemies. I take a different view.

Confessing that we cannot know everything or anticipate what we should know in its totality must be our starting point. Only those subjects beyond “objective testing” can teach us that essential humility, that the freedom to think can never be standardized. The government cannot prepare us for progress; we, even those of us who teach in its schools, must teach freely, including—indeed above all—those subjects that promote liberty and inquiry. A multiple-choice test may be rational, but it will not promote the birth and exercise of reason, which come only from the freedom to reflect on all disciplines, above all history and the humanities, without the pressure of a standardized test. If that freedom is sometimes used irresponsibly by teachers, that is still, in my mind, a small price to pay if we can save at least some in a generation trained merely to “pass a test” created to serve the ends of educationists. Surely its recovery in public schools is a vital goal. For from that freedom comes more than “accountability,” even “knowledge.” It is the first step toward wisdom.

Notes

  1. An earlier version of this was presented at the thirteenth annual meeting of the Texas Medieval Association, Baylor University, on 26 September 2003.
  2. On which see Ronald H. Nash, “The Myth of a Value-Free Eduation,” Religion and Liberty 1 (1991), cited at http://www.acton.org/publicat/randl/article.php?id=18 on 29 September 2003.
  3. Richard Simpson, “Bureaucracy” in Selected Writings of Lord Acton, v. 1: Essays in the History of Liberty, ed. J. Rufus Fears (Indianapolis 1985) 518—530 at 522—523.
  4. Ibid., 528—529.
  5. http:www.tea.state.tx.us, accessed on 14 October 2003.
  6. Randall Collins, The Credential Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification (New York 1979), chapter 1.
  7. Ibid., 30—31.
  8. Christopher L. Doyle, “Teach these Boys and Girls Nothing but Facts: History in the Public Schools” Perspectives (April 2002) 33—36.
  9. Mortimer Brewster Smith, The Diminished Mind: A Study of Planned Mediocrity in our Public Schools, (New York 1954) 76—77.
  10. A classic phrase coined by E. A. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe,” American Historical Review 79.4 (1974) 1063—1088, on which see recently my essay “Avoiding the 'Tyranny of a Construct': Structural Considerations Concerning Twelfth Century Canon Law” in Das Eigene und das Ganze. Zum Individuellen im mittelalterlichen Religiosentum, ed. G. Melville and M. Schürer (Vita Regularis 16, Münster 2002) 419—438.
  11. Quoted in Smith, “Hard Lessons.”
  12. Cited at http://www.dvdtimes.co.uk/reviews/region1/rollerball.html, accessed on 9 September 2003.